Westminster Watch - December 2013

End of term report. As 2013 draws to a close, Toby Craig reviews the past 12 months in Westminster.

As the finishing touches are applied to the 2013 review shows and we reflect on another passing year, it’s natural to turn our minds to what the past 12 months will be remembered for. There was no Olympics, no glorious summer of sport (though Andy Murray did win Wimbledon, which probably makes up for all of that and more) and no seismic political changes at the ballot box. The third full year of the Coalition Government, perhaps like that difficult second album, has been one of consolidation, strained relations and a relentless and determined push towards the finish line.

The thoughts of all the parties are moving towards election planning and strategy, and dividing lines are quickly being drawn up which will form the battle grounds in 2015. Ed Miliband has grown into his role as Opposition Leader. Whilst the polls are not yet with him personally, he was decisive over the Leveson Report, which resonated with public opinion and delivered a very well received Conference speech, which tackled the issue of energy bills; again tapping into the public mood. The Labour machine may wish to see bigger poll leads at this stage of the cycle, but it is fighting hard to offer a cogent and viable alternative to the Government’s austerity package.

For the Coalition - something of a mixed bag. The economic news, whilst a question of interpretation, looks good. The economy appears to be turning a corner, albeit slowly, and that will buoy the Chancellor, who has staked everything on a biting austerity programme coming good. And it is as those cuts hit the pockets of hardworking families across the country that the political and public resolve is tested the most. Having failed to win the argument that austerity was not helping the economy to recover, Labour has instead turned to what it dubs the ‘cost of living crisis’. That argument may have a great deal more resonance with people who see prices rising and their incomes falling in real terms. The problems for the Coalition, however, remain the sloppy mistakes. The lost vote over Syria was attributed in large part to lazy whipping and there remains far too much backbench revolt to maintain effective party discipline. Tactical mistakes and slips by the team in Number 10 have allowed the Prime Minister still, far too easily, to be portrayed as out of touch with ‘ordinary people’. It is that type of perception which needs to be stamped out for the Conservatives to run an effective, and winning, election campaign. The economy will take them some way, if it continues to grow, but it may not be enough.

The Lib Dems have the hardest task of all. Whilst they may have enjoyed the trappings of power, life in the Coalition has not always been easy and they have struggled to forge a clear and separate identity. Their efforts to appear as the compassionate voice within the Government do not seem to have resonated.

The report cards for all parties might well read ‘must try harder’.

Trust in authority

But it’s not just Parliament which struggles to win the trust and faith of the public. It’s been a bruising year for the other sources of authority. The police and the security services have been tested too. For the police, the aftermath of the announcement of a new Hillsborough Inquiry at the end of last year has shaken the public’s trust. The long-running Andrew Mitchell saga, which is still incomplete, has raised other questions about the integrity of serving officers. Alongside the Ian Tomlinson case and the ongoing Mark Duggan inquest (which is yet to reach a conclusion), the challenges to the police force, which overwhelmingly work with bravery and commitment in the public interest, have been immense. It has also challenged politicians to respond proportionately at a time when public services, including the police, are being cut.

The security services have not served much better. The Snowden and Manning leak-a-thons have disclosed a broad array of embarrassing and damaging information about how they go about their business. The sheer volume of routine communications which appear habitually to be scrutinised should send chills down the spine of anyone who values their privacy, regardless of whether or not they have anything to hide. It is hard to understand how the perceived threat justifies quite such levels of intrusion. Again, the balance for Parliamentarians is properly to scrutinise these activities whilst understanding where the line of national security must properly be drawn.

Justice denied

But from a more inward-looking perspective, the year will be remembered for the, perhaps irreparable, damage done to legal aid. It started with the implementation of LASPO in April and was quickly followed by the Transforming Legal Aid consultation which, if implemented as intended, will do further damage to civil legal aid, hit judicial review hard and has criminal solicitors and advocates squarely in its sights. Despite the enormous difficulties, the profession has responded positively and constructively. The Bar Council produced a well-received Guide to Representing Yourself in Court to tackle LASPO and the Chairman of the Bar gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee, hosted a public legal aid question time, appeared on BBC’s Any Questions and regularly sought to explain the Bar’s position to the public. Nobody could accuse the Bar of failing to contribute constructively to the debate; it is just a shame that there appear to be so few in Government who have listened to the profession’s concerns.

It must seem a disappointing note to end such a demanding year on, but the profession should take enormous pride in its unwavering advocacy on behalf of a justice system which is admired around the world. It is that dedication and commitment to the values which the Bar has prized for centuries which will long outlive any Government, despite its best efforts. As the Chairman of the Bar told the Bar Conference last month, there is still much to fight for.

Something to mull on over some sherry and a warm mince pie. Until 2014…

Toby Craig is the head of communications at the Bar Council